14 Oct 2021 16:27 IST

Straight talking as leaders

An honest leader paints a real picture to help teams do better, keeping the best interests at heart.

We had reflected on tone deaf leadership in one of the previous columns. Leaders also need to learn and practice the art of straight talk. Leaders who avoid a culture of straight talk, end up with situations like the one Roberta Fusaro wrote about in the Harvard Business Review  article fittingly titled, ‘Straight Talk.’ She recalled a Xerox press release that went: “The senior team…spontaneously erupted into sustained applause and stood as a sign of respect to their new leader.”

That would not sound out of place in a North Korean cabinet meeting with Kim Jong-un presiding! Now we all know what happened to Xerox and perhaps part of what led to its decline, was an avoidance of straight talk. Leaders must not only practice straight talk but also create an environment and provide the permission for straight talk to be allowed and flourish. Let’s take a quick look at the what, why and how of straight talk.


When Winston Churchill addressed the British nation in his first speech as Prime Minister, he gave us a great example of why straight talk is so important. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”


Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the UK from 1940 to 1945.


That’s straight talk in spades. Especially in a crisis, a leader’s role is to present his team with the raw reality. He cannot indulge in false bravado. It is not the time for a chest-thumping motivation speech. If the team has to be part of the turnaround, then they must have the unvarnished truth presented to them.

A crisis is clearly a time for straight talk. But it should also become a work habit and part of the everyday culture that a leader wants to create. She needs to know the facts, she needs to get real feedback on her ideas, she needs to hear what is not necessarily pleasant to hear. She needs to shun the suck-up-to-the-boss talk and urge straight talk. I’ve seen many organisations decay and die slow, painful deaths. Some of them don’t even know they’ve died — on a culture of gossip or back talk or euphemisms or beating around the bush, simply because leaders and their teams do everything in their power to avoid straight talk. This desire to please and be polite creates a calm surface but a storm roils beneath. All the smiles and vigorous nods and flattering talk are often followed by passive-aggressive team members sabotaging the work rather than challenging the leaders well-meant but ill-conceived ideas or strategies.

Straight talk is especially critical when leaders want growth — of their business, their people or a new initiative. Check out this line from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla’s website on how they work — “We prefer brutal honesty to hypocritical politeness.”

Source: Khosla Ventures official website.


They recognise, I’m sure through hard-won experience, that the best gift they can give budding entrepreneurs is not the “wow-it’s-a-killer-idea” feedback but the bare-knuckled inputs that force entrepreneurs to challenge themselves and their ideas. The same holds true of a budding leader. Sure, she needs encouragement, positive reinforcement, but she also needs the no-holds-barred honesty on her blind spots and qualities that hold her leadership back. If she has any of the promise she demonstrates she will see straight talk for what it is — a tool for growth.


Straight talk is very often a test of integrity. If I consistently think one thing but say something else; if my feedback doesn’t get past the sugar coating, I’m not only doing my team and colleagues a disservice, I’m also not being true to myself.

In the TV show Ted Lasso, Dr Sharon, the psychologist for the football team that Ted coaches tells him: “Ted, the truth will set you free. (referencing a saying by Jesus). But first it will piss you off.” And again “I can’t be your mentor without occasionally being your tormentor.” Both times she’s giving us some insight into what straight talk is and what it entails. It most likely will cause some heartburn. It’s going to be difficult to give and difficult to take.


Still from the TV show Ted Lasso (2020).   -  Twitter


I recall having a straight talk conversation with a colleague who I was urging to go past her one-dimensional pit-bull style of leading and managing. She burst out in tears partly from shock and partly because it hit home. While the conversation was difficult, I took great pride in seeing her mature and broaden the way she led and managed her teams and clients. There was less snarl and more smile. I think she got better outcomes and was happier in her journey. Dr Sharon’s second sentence also tells us what straight talk is meant to strive for — to help not harm the situation or person. I’ve seen many leaders vent their frustration, scream and shout and call it straight talk. It isn’t — it’s just poorly disciplined leaders blowing off steam. Straight talk takes hard work. It takes homework. It takes caring. It is given with calm and authenticity. For the receiver to take it on board and do something about it, the leader must show she can be trusted, show she has the competence and credibility and show she cares.


It’s a given that straight talk all the time, to everyone, in any circumstances can be a recipe for disaster. As Jo Eisenhart, senior vice-president of Human Resources, Facilities and Philanthropy at Northwestern Mutual, would ask: “How straight is too straight?” It can break relationships, discourage colleagues, and sometimes even negatively affect the very outcome the leader was looking to achieve. And perhaps that’s where we must begin if we have to learn the art of straight talk — with the outcome. What is the outcome I intend to achieve?

Giving a junior colleague encouraging feedback on his day one and holding off on some straight talk may be the understanding thing to do but repeating the same thing on day 10 without giving your colleague the opportunity to get feedback that will help him grow is weak leadership. A low-stakes conversation on whether everyone liked the boss’ wife’s cooking — it’s understandable that straight talk may land you in the soup — some very hot soup. But when you witness the boss having a destructive or toxic conversation with a defenceless colleague, that’s a time to have the courage and creativity for straight talk.

Sometimes the onus is on us to facilitate straight talk to happen. Often in a sales situation, the leader driving the sales effort has a great conversation with the prospect. There’s a lot of back slapping and mutual compliments and the team leaves the prospect’s place sure in the knowledge that the deal is theirs, only to find out later that the sweet talk did not translate into a willingness to sign the contract (mea culpa). Instead, if the leader has set expectations. “We’ve had a great set of conversations on how our service would add value to your organisation. Would it be a fair expectation at the end of this meeting for you to give us your specific feedback and your intention to go ahead or not go ahead?” That frees up people from the walls of self-imposed politeness and gives them the licence to speak their minds in terms of whether they will buy or not.

Still from the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).   -  YouTube


Straight talk is the foundation of real leadership and real relationships. A leader who is straight talking down but not straight talking up needs to firm up his spine. A leader who straight talks to the competition but avoids doing so with a colleague is harming that colleague’s growth. As Dumbledore would say in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies but even more to stand up to your friends.” Do we care enough to do that?